Congratulations to James Munene on receiving the Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, Leakey Foundation Research Grant, and the Leakey Foundation Francis H. Brown African Scholarship for his project titled "The Ecological Context of Modern Human Evolution in Central Rift Valley, Kenya during the late Quaternary"!
Tracking the processes by which H. sapiens developed its extraordinarily broad ecological niche has been argued as key for understanding the evolution of behaviors characteristic of our species. Our ability to pursue these ideas in East Africa, however, has severely been impeded by that region's small and incomplete record of well-dated archaeological sequences and associated environmental evidence. James Munene's research seeks to improve our understanding of the ecological contexts of modern human evolution in the Central Rift Valley, Kenya, and test hypotheses of the environmental changes during the Late Quaternary (~350,000–10,000 years ago ka). James' research will address three questions: (1) Do local terrestrial environments in which modern humans evolved in Central Rift Valley reflect broader shifts in climate registered in East Africa during the Late Quaternary? (2) Did ranging patterns and degree of social connectivity differ during arid and humid periods? (3) Are there changes in lithic technology through time that suggest increasing adaptability to environmental change? This will be achieved through the excavation of two long Middle Stone Age sequences in Kenya’s Central Rift – Ilkek Drift and Malewa River Gorge. Stratified throughout both sequences are volcanic ashes that provide excellent opportunities for dating and intersite correlation with others across the broader region. Both deep sequences possess interstratified lake sediments with Malewa also containing fossil mammals, which provide opportunities for developing high-resolution, multi-proxy paleoenvironmental reconstructions. The Central Rift also has many chemically distinct obsidian sources whose chemical provenience analysis provides opportunities for analysis of mobility and interaction. This project will set the pace for further site-specific, high-resolution reconstructions and contribute knowledge on whether and how environmental changes precipitated innovation during the behavioral evolution of our species.